The Wall Street Journal has a sports section, something that came along with, or at least greatly expanded following, News Corp.’s takeover of the paper in 2007. It’s sort of what you might expect: a mixed-bag of quality in writing and presentation with more emphasis on tennis and sailing than other sports pages. It features writing from some really smart, talented people like Jason Gay and, formerly, David Roth (of Classical fame and now in an expanded role at SB Nation), and we try to feature those smart articles on this site. Because the paper doesn’t have to uphold a reputation as a source for sports– the move to expand sports coverage appears to be aimed at increasing website clicks– its “sports writers” might be more likely to come to their sports articles with varying backgrounds and varying levels of commitment to the sports world. Once in a while, it even feels like the WSJ’s editorial board drops in on the sports section, and that’s the feeling I had when I read last week’s article about running.
A “generational battle is raging in endurance athletics,” the article announces. “Old-timers are suggesting that performance-related apathy [exists] among young amateur athletes,” which “helps explain why America hasn’t won an Olympic marathon medal since 2004,” among other things.
There are numbers that support the conclusion that “kids these days [are] just not very fast.” At this year’s Chicago Triathlon, for example, older runners, as a group, did better than younger runners. Younger American runners are not surpassing older ones in world competition.
“There’s not as many super-competitive athletes today as when the baby boomers were in their 20s and 30s,” said Ryan Lamppa, spokesman for Running USA, an industry-funded research group. While noting the health benefits that endurance racing confers regardless of pace, Lamppa—a 54-year-old competitive runner—said, “Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it’s good enough just to finish.”
“If you’re going to get just as much praise for doing a four-hour marathon as a three-hour, why bother killing yourself training?” asked Robert Johnson, a founder of LetsRun.com, adding that, “It’s hard to do well in a marathon if your idea of a long session is watching season four of ‘The Wire.'”
The yoots don’t even give a care: “instead of fighting back, the young increasingly are thumbing their nose at the very concept of racing,” a result of or contributor to “a growing embrace of mediocrity.” The article likens newer endurance “events” like Tough Mudder and Color Run to the Hipster Olympics. All of this is “concern[ing]” and “scar[y].” Said one person over the age of fifty, “races are turning into parades.”
Perhaps it’s true that the younger generation of endurance runners aren’t as fast as the older generation. Maybe that’s a result of decreased competitiveness. Maybe it’s a result of increased diversity in available athletic outlets.
If younger Americans really are less competitive than older ones, as the article indicates, and if that decreased competitiveness is a result of growing up in a world in which “everybody gets a medal,” as the article repeatedly indicates, then it isn’t really fair to turn around and blame the younger generation, as the article does, for behaving in a manner commensurate with their nurturing. The fiftysomething author can’t have it both ways: either those muddling kids are of their own accord “apathetic” (because of video games or cell phones or indie rock or the teevee), or the author’s generation reaped exactly what it sowed.
I reject outright the assertion that all of this, to the extent it’s real, represents “a growing embrace of mediocrity.” First, one can prefer a less competitive lifestyle and environment without embracing mediocrity; the two concepts need not be related with each other. If someone, like the author, believes that competitiveness positively contributes to quality of life, he or she just might see an abandonment of competitiveness as a move toward mediocrity. That’s but one potential measure of the quality of life, however, and that another person prefers a less competitive existence says nothing about whether that person’s slouching toward mediocrity. (Perhaps the author fears that, having pinned so much on his own sporting accomplishments, his inevitable physical decline will lead to an increasingly mediocre life? I’ll leave the psychoanalysis to others.)
There are some things to be said about sports here too. Most obviously, the author fails to consider whether, despite a decreased emphasis on outcomes and competition, a greater number of people are participating in athletics. Surely that would be a good thing, and the cited popularity of events like Tough Mudder and Color Run reasonably suggests that more people are being physically active. There’s a difference between fitness and sports, of course, but for most of us, sports aren’t a realistic option after high school. Once traditional, organized sports opportunities fall away, we’re left with church softball, urban kickball leagues, weekly tennis groups, pickup basketball, and random 5Ks or even triathlons. Sports and fitness converge, and as much as sports are entertainment for fans, these athletic activities are entertaining excuses to work out. I’m not saying we need more 13.1 stickers, but if more people are getting out and running (and training for) half marathons, that’s a good thing, and if a Color Run is a gateway happening that leads people to try more rigorous activities than otherwise would have, that’s a good thing too. (That’s what seems to be happening: more people are running marathons than ever.)
Have we lowered our standards or expectations? Maybe. But remember that exercise of any form as an activity for the general populace is a somewhat new concept. (That’s why Will Ferrell’s joke in Anchorman is funny.) Broader participation almost certainly requires an initial lowering of expectations. Remember too that for every hipster olympian Tough Mudderer and Color Runner, there are Tae Boers, P90Xers, and Crossfitters, and it’s reasonable to think that the former can lead to the latter. If people would rather have fun when they run than crush their enemies, see them driven before (or behind) them, and hear the lamentation of their women, is that really something to be “concerned” and “scared” about? Is it really “embracing mediocrity” to be driven to ski another trail or bike another route by a desire to have new experiences with self, nature, or friends, rather than simply to beat the clock?
Twice the article refers to the younger generation as sports communists, but I don’t think the socialization of athletic participation is a bad thing if it increases the number people participating in and enjoying athletic activity.